Robot scientist – first machine to discover new scientific knowledge

Source: Cambridge University, Apr 2009

Scientists from the University of Cambridge and Aberystwyth University have created a “robot scientist” which the researchers believe is the first machine to have independently discovered new scientific knowledge.

The robot, called Adam, is a computer system that fully automates the scientific process. The work, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) was published today, 03 April 2009, in the journal Science.

The scientists designed Adam to carry out each stage of the scientific process automatically without the need for further human intervention. The robot has discovered simple but new scientific knowledge about the genomics of the baker’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an organism that scientists use to model more complex life systems. The researchers have used separate manual experiments to confirm that Adam’s hypotheses were both novel and correct.

“As we start to consider living systems in a holistic manner, the complexity of such systems means that it will become increasingly difficult for scientists to formulate hypotheses unaided. Thus it will be necessary for human and robot scientists to work together to achieve the goals of biological research.

“It is not the management and analysis of complex data that is the big deal about Adam, it is the ability of the machine to reason with those data and make proposals about how a living thing works.”

 

Using artificial intelligence, Adam hypothesised that certain genes in baker’s yeast code for specific enzymes which catalyse biochemical reactions in yeast. The robot then devised experiments to test these predictions, ran the experiments using laboratory robotics, interpreted the results and repeated the cycle.

Prof King continued: “If science was more efficient it would be better placed to help solve society’s problems. One way to make science more efficient is through automation. Automation was the driving force behind much of the 19th and 20th century progress, and this is likely to continue.”

Professor Oliver of Wolfson College and his post-doc Pnar Pir participated in the construction of the logical model of yeast metabolism that formed Adam’s background knowledge. They also designed the basic experimental format in terms of media, growth conditions, etc., and analysed Adam’s hypotheses to figure out why human scientists failed to connect those genes to the orphan enzymes.

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